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Team Culture

Team culture -- the way in which the team comes together to define a performance personality -- is very much influenced by the approach taken to implement an HR function. The more cultural development is integrated into the day to day activities of HR -- including formal team events and celebrations, the more a positive culture develops that helps feed that feeling of excellence that should permeate the office environment.

Well established companies like McDonalds, Microsoft, Google, GE, etc have cultural ambiance you can pick up on when you enter their facilities -- you want this for your Company. It greatly accelerates the ramp time of new employees, it separates your team from its competitors, it deepens the commitment to success all team members have. This section will explore some key areas of culture that are worth proactively developing and will also discuss a bit about how culture often develops on its own.

Culture at PlateSpin

From a personal perspective, establishing a definable culture was very important to me when we formed PlateSpin. Prior to PlateSpin, I worked with several companies (OfficeSmiths, Fulcrum, FloNetwork) where positive culture was a big element of what made the job enjoyable and what helped make the business a success overall. How to create a positive experience for my business was unclear, but looking back at it, PlateSpin's team culture was exceptional and very much contributed to the level of business success we had.

Our business was highly successful -- therefore creating a rewarding environment for most everyone, but we still had to work to create the kind of culture we wanted. Some key things that we did to create the right culture for us included encouraging team-wide activities, committing to regular team lunches, away trips outside the work environment, lots of communication about the state of the business, rewards for exceptional performance, diversification of staff hiring, promotion of quality people, open door policy for senior management and more. We were built top-down to be successful which created the right drive-forward culture that many businesses do not have. One key element was also the early formation of an HR function and the related processes, almost from the start - perhaps one of the differences that allowed us to reach the heights that we did.


Although there may not be a specific formula for team culture that works for everyone, there are some fundamentals that seem relevant:

If the fundamentals are managed well, the right type of culture tends to emerge. The work environment is place people want to be and the team thrives on the success of the whole. if the fundamentals are mismanaged, the culture tends to turn negative and few people perform at their true potential.

When Culture Goes Bad

Sometimes a few people are at the center of negative business culture. They come with a set of experiences and 'best practices' that conflict with how the business has been managed so far. They bring a new sense of how things should be done and work hard to unravel many of the positive things that may already exist -- often without realizing the impact on the people around them. Human tendencies take over and before it can be stopped, your business is not a pleasant place to work.

One very direct way to deal with this is the removal of the offending person or people. What is very effective is decisive decision making -- don't wait. Don't get caught up in the 'should have done that earlier' trap -- do it now. It is so rare that the loss of any one person becomes fatal for a business -- especially someone who is bringing down culture overall -- their removal often results in a renaissance of renewed enthusiasm for the success of the business. It also demonstrates that the business leaders are prepared to make hard decisions and support the changes needed to always be moving forward.

The Role of Human Resources (HR)

A formalized HR function can be a key element in establishing the type of culture you may want for your organization. If nothing else, HR can act as a confidant for an employee to discuss issues that challenge their interests in working for the Company. In fact, regardless of how effective the 'open door' policy is for senior management, HR is often most aware of the issues that affect overall morale and often draw attention to an issue before anyone else hears about it.

HR is an ideal focal point for planning and implementing programs that directly address the changes that might be needed to bring the team from a point of negative culture to a more positive one. HR can act as a rally point for change, a voice of reason between departments (conflict) and in some cases, the first ones to become aware of negative developments -- often earlier than the CEO or any individual manager.

HR is often the organizer of social activities, bringing fun to the office where fun sometimes is not. They can help generate enthusiasm for work life, doing the small things that no one else has or will take the time to do. The more a team gets to know each other, the better they ultimately work together chasing the key goals.

HR is also responsible for equity, fair play and a variety of other formal and informal rules related to local employment law. It's important to establish where you want to be in this area -- pick a target that exceeds what your local geography says is the minimum -- if your Company is striving for global domination, it's hard to do that with a team that is managed to the minimum standards.

Measuring Culture

How many people show up for Company functions -- how many people respond to internal surveys looking for feedback, how many people volunteer for extra projects (versus being forcibly nominated)? Negative cultured teams tend to operate in isolation, coming to work, going home, without much thought about the bigger picture. Positive cultures show themselves in terms of how much participation occurs in all aspects of work. If you feel unsure about what type of culture you have, organize an off-site event -- even something simple as going out to a movie, and see how many people want to go.

If you are fighting an overtly negative culture, you may need to bring in a 3rd party to help assess what is going on. Skilled facilitators will make sure feedback is forthcoming and set out a plan to help turn the boat in a different direction.

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